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Reflections on starting work on the 'Villlages Together Partnership' during covid

Article written by Mary Cullen - Community Project Lead at SHAL Housing

I applied for the job of Community Project Worker with SHAL and the Villages Together Partnership because I wanted to use my skills which I had developed over many years in housing and community engagement. I also saw an opportunity to support residents to achieve something of lasting value with their incredible Big Local award and I wanted to give something back to my own community in Somerset.

My job interview was conducted over Zoom during the uncertain phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, probably over the worst, but not yet getting back to the office.  On zooming in to the interview I was more than a little surprised to encounter a whole row of faces greeting me, including several residents. Having often in the past railed against the appointment of tenant involvement/community development workers without residents on the panel, this was a great indicator that SHAL, Villages Together, Big Local and I would indeed be a good fit.

I was offered the job that same day and invited to my first Villages Together Partnership meeting as an observer. This was a face to face meeting, the first partnership meeting in months, with only voting members invited to limit the risk of infection. Others had given their views on grants and issues beforehand. As I travelled to the venue across the lovely Polden Hills, enjoying the views and the evening sunshine, I reminded myself how lucky I am to be living in such a beautiful part of the country. Strange to think a deadly virus was still around, invisible and waiting to strike.

On reaching the venue we sanitised our hands, gave our contact details and all sat two metres apart. Some members wore facemasks. The back doors of the hall were open to ensure good ventilation. I could sense anxiety in the room and realised that this was the new reality. We would have to get used to it. I debated wearing a face mask, but in my first meeting with residents’ when the all- important good first impression needed to be made, I opted against using one. I had a few anxious few days afterwards, but I’m still sure it was the right decision at that time.

The Chair reflected on all the work that had gone on during the Covid -19 lockdown with the Villages Together partnership funding local parishes and groups to supply hot meals to vulnerable older people and local volunteers rallying round to collect shopping and prescriptions for those in need. The high level of community spirit was remarked upon and held up as a beacon of hope in a troubled time. One of the key learning points was the number of isolated older people living in just the two villages, the extent of this not previously realised.

Part of my plan of work was to get to know the villages better, so I asked for residents to show me around. On a socially distanced walk around Puriton one sunny morning, I got to know the various community facilities and the places people used to meet, until recently.  My guides were enthusiastic about their village and proud to show it off. We talked about a new housing development planned between the two villages and the potential impact of this, perhaps joining the villages together, forever changing their identity. We also talked about the opportunities it might bring for the development of new community facilities. I knew these trade-offs were being debated in villages up and down the country.

My plans to organise an early community event or and activity were put on hold. It did not seem appropriate to ask people to come together when daily infection levels were rising again. So, I launched myself on Facebook and set about promoting online activities and information about local services.

Our next scheduled partnership meeting was cancelled due to the Rule of Six. Even with just voting members we would be more than six, although someone said if we were a charity we could have had more. Someone else said not. Guidelines were scrutinised to see if we could make sense of them. We speculated that autumn/winter meetings would probably need to be by Zoom so set about finding out what IT equipment members had and what level of support they needed. 

Some members were all set up and ready to go, others hesitant to move towards this way of working, others had no IT equipment or experience. Internet access and broadband speeds are also an issue in the area. Our Big Local rep provided a list of digital resources and we are now in the process of planning for the next meeting and getting everyone zoom ready.

Our Big Local Plan is also due for review at this time, bringing further challenges around how best to engage and consult with the local community in the middle of a pandemic. The more traditional approach of holding consultation events in the village hall may yet prove impossible, the rules on household mixing are changing day by day and we are told stronger measures may need to be put in place over the next few months. But will people really engage electronically? We want to reach the most vulnerable to ensure we can find out how best to support them over the challenging times ahead. How can we best do this? Zoom won’t be the solution here I fear.  On the other hand, younger people may be more likely to engage using digital means and it may even attract views from people who might never come to a consultation event. So, a blended approach is what we need to try, with a lot of trial and error thrown in, I suspect. But we have learning from elsewhere, the will to do the best for our communities and the opportunity to hear some new voices, so I’m sure that we will come up with an effective plan, we’re just working on it now!

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